Czech lawmakers pass religious property restitution bill

Prague — Czech lawmakers have overridden an upper-house veto to pass a key bill on the restitution of assets seized from 17 religious denominations by former Czechoslovakia's communist regime in 1948-89.

After a three-hour debate, the centre-right governing coalition passed the bill with 102 votes in the 200-seat parliament.

The left-wing opposition left the lower house in protest before the vote.

Under the bill, the denominations including Christian and Jewish religious institutions will regain 56 percent of properties seized by the communist regime -- toppled in 1989, four years before Czechoslovakia's peaceful split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

They will also receive 59 billion koruna (2.3 billion euros, $2.97 billion) in compensation for the remainder of their properties in 30 annual payments, with the outstanding sum to be indexed for inflation every year.

The properties to be returned are worth a total 75 billion koruna.

However, the state will stop using public funds to cover clergymen's salaries under a 17-year transition scheme.

The bill comes as a relief to regions and municipalities that have had to care for the seized Church assets up to now, and as less of a relief for the austerity-minded government at a time the country has entered into recession.

The central bank of the export-focused central European country of 10.5 million expects the economy to contract by 0.9 percent this year before growing by 0.2 percent in 2013.

Last December, a poll by the STEM agency showed that seven in 10 Czechs oppose the restitution of Church assets seized by the state.

A 2011 census showed Roman Catholics were the strongest religious group in the Czech Republic with more than a million believers.

But almost five million Czechs or half of the population left the religion column empty, while 3.6 million said they were non-believers.